Tim Burton’s steady decline continues in dramatic fashion.
Fair warning to whomever reads this: I’m not a happy camper, so lots of complaining is forthcoming. I did not like this movie. Not one bit. I don’t know if it’s because I hold fond memories of the original Dumbo (1941), or because every single second of this new live-action Dumbo (2019) is a contrived, boring, predictable mess, from the opening scene of a CGI train chugging across the southern U.S. to the inevitable happy ending where everything is bright and sunny in Disneyland.
This new Dumbo takes place in 1919, where a travelling carnival led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is delighted to welcome a newborn elephant into its troupe. But wait, how can this be? His ears – they’re huge and disgusting! The crowds laugh and hurl peanuts at him. The only people who care for him are Milly and Joe (a perpetually sullen Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbins). They are the children of Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who was once the carnival’s star attraction before the Great War removed one of his arms.
Milly? Joe? Holt? Who the heck are these people? – you ask. Fair question. The original Dumbo was all about Dumbo and his mouse friend Timothy. The humans were ornamental figures who barely spoke. This remake envisions a story where the humans are front and centre, and Dumbo is a kind of supporting superstar. Naturally, the entire cast is brand new. This might’ve worked if Ehren Kruger, responsible for the screenplay, had devised a story that was as imaginative and challenging as the original. Alas, it’s another dusty tale of the humble family business taken over by the ruthless tycoon.
The tycoon this time is Vandevere, played by Michael Keaton in one of Keaton’s most bewildering and dangerously absurd performances. Vandevere, who runs an impossibly modern circus complex, hears of the infamous flying pachyderm and offers to merge Max’s troupe with his own. Max has obviously never seen a movie in his life so can’t possibly imagine that Vandevere means to swindle him. Meanwhile, you might’ve realised how little of Dumbo the Elephant I am mentioning. That is because Dumbo doesn’t do anything worth mentioning, except fall from great heights before swooping up at the last second.
Couldn’t Kruger have thought of anything more original for these characters to do? Couldn’t the director, Tim Burton, have allowed them to behave convincingly, to make decisions that surprise and enchant? Everyone is a marionette, hoisted by strings, controlled by the devices of the plot, yanked this way and that. Everything they do is a mechanical step toward a robotic conclusion. If you don’t think that’s sad, just remember how the best Disney movies continue to move us in ways we thought we had forgotten. Next to them, Dumbo is, for lack of a more sophisticated description, dumb.
Dumbo is available in Australian cinemas from March 28
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures